Talkin’ In The Green Room With: Harriet Oser

Welcome to a regular, if intermittent feature: Irreverent, lighthearted question & answer sessions with some of South Florida’s best known professionals.

In this edition, we visit Harriet Oser who talks about a career that encompasses playing the bride in Blood Wedding while pregnant to wondering if a scene partner was going to collapse on stage. Having just celebrated her 80th birthday – she volunteered that piece of information – Oser is as busy as ever. She had a stunning nearly-silent turn as Nanny, the doddering boarder in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds where she seemed oblivious to the harangues of Laura Turnbull’s harridan mother. This summer she’s planning to be in a reading at Mosaic Theatre, then fulfilling a dream of playing the title character in Driving Miss Daisy at the new Plaza Theatre in Manalapan and then this January, she will reprise her role as a Holocaust survivor in The Interview at Women’s Theatre Project.

Hometown: I was born and grew up in one of my favorite cities Chicago, Illinois.

How long have you lived/worked in South Florida?
We moved here in 1979. When my husband found that he had more health problems than most of his patients, he retired and we moved to Florida. I hadn’t worked in theatre for many years, I had three children very close in age, but now they were in college, so after a few years I decided to try to go back to work. It was my husband’s suggestion. I auditioned for Mrs. Frank in The Diary Of Anne Frank for The Ruth Foreman Theatre and got the role. I did two more shows that year and have worked pretty regularly from then on. The past couple of years have slowed down a bit, but I can’t complain. I’ve had a good ride.

What school did you graduate from/what was your major?
Graduated from Goodman Theatre (1949-1953) in the acting program. I also learned how to wash flats, use a ratchet and pound nails. I studied under those wonderful people from The Moscow Art Theatre and Mary Agnes Doyle who was such a stickler for voice and diction. It was a three-year program, but I was invited back for a fourth year. I got married during that year and by the end of the year I was pregnant and playing The Bride in Blood Wedding. The very lovely and talented Theoni Aldredge, secretly put elastic in the waist of the black wedding gown.

 What role/play are you dying to do but no one would think of you for?
A one-woman show about Ayn Rand interests me. She wasn’t the most likable person and I don’t agree with her politically, but I think she was fascinating and would make an interesting piece, if someone is interested in writing it. I was also thinking about a one-woman show about the Duchess of Windsor, but there’s a movie coming out now and, I believe, a play about her and her lawyer in London.

What show do you wish somebody down here would produce?
For many years I’ve wanted to do Long Days Journey Into Night. I’d also like to do Driving Miss Daisy because I think it would be such a joy working with John Archie in that piece. And there are others, but those are the two that come to mind at the moment. I’d love to work with my dear friends, Angie Radosh and Kay Brady. Perhaps Rockers by Sherwood Schwartz. I did it at Flatrock Playhouse in North Carolina with Ken Kay directing and we had such a good time with the piece.

What do you say when someone you like is in a terrible show or does a poor job?

I’m so fortunate that my closest friends are excellent actors, so that’s not a problem. I can usually find something positive to say, even if I’m not entirely happy with what I saw. Nobody wants to be bad. If I’m really very unhappy with what I saw, I leave before the actors come out and I email the ones I appreciated.

How do you cope when there are more people on stage than in the audience?
And there have been! What’s that quote from Hamlet? “The centure of which one must, in your allowance, o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.” I guess, what I mean, if there is one person in the house who has come to see the production, then you play your all for that one person. I could never throw a show and I don’t know too many actors who would. There are some, I guess.

What is there about you that most people don’t know (and that you’ll admit publically)?
I usually put my make-up on at home because I hate for anyone to see me without make-up. Then I end up playing Nanny in Marigolds. Oh well, such is life.

What were you thinking about when your character was staring into space in Man in the Moon Marigolds?
(Director) Bill (Hayes) and I decided that Nanny was mostly deaf, but I felt she had some selective hearing. I, therefore, listened for certain moments to respond, but those moments were few. Okay. What was I thinking? Firstly, “I’m hungry.  Where am I? Where’s my daughter?” Mostly, though, “Where am I? Where am I? Where am I?” In the second scene, once I touched the bunny and it disappeared, I just wanted to go away, to sleep. So they fed me beer and I drifted in and out.

What’s the hardest/easiest part of what you do?
I guess it depends upon the role. Some times I can pick up a script and the character just takes over. When we did The Interview and I was questioned by the children of Holocaust survivors, I could only say that it was in my DNA. And I don’t know why. Then there are times when I have to work harder. Then research comes in and that’s always fun. I guess one of the hardest things I have to contend with is my need for perfectionism. It really bothers me if I blow a line or mess up in some way. I imagine most actors feel that way, though.

What do you do after a show?
If there are people in the audience that I know, we go out for a glass of wine after the show and usually chit chat about the show, etc. Otherwise, I go home. My son recently was in town from L.A. while I was appearing in After The Revolution (at the Caldwell last fall). He hadn’t seen me on stage in about 35 years because I never liked my kids to visit while I’m working because it takes away from time spent together. Well, he was like a kid in a candy shop. I will never forget that evening as long as I live. My father used to come back after a show, lift his glasses and wipe his eyes.

What was the first show you were involved in and what did you do?
A play called Fumed Oak, I think, held at a community center. I was about 9, playing a little cockney girl. I don’t remember much about it. When I was 10, I did my first professional radio show on WIND, Chicago. About 25 years later when I was doing JB in Detroit, the man that played God in the production also worked on that very same radio show. Can you imagine? Hooking up, 25 years later,

When did you know this was what you wanted to do and why?
I had a lisp until I was about nine. My cousin, Jean David, an actress, was also teaching speech and speechwriting to professional people. My mother approached her about my lisp and she agreed to work with me. I lost my lisp but continued to work with her, privately, having to do with theatre. She was tough on me, but I loved it. I continued working with her until I entered the Goodman Theater.

What do think has been your best work in the theater to date, and why?
Oh, I really don’t know. Every new show is another new life and, sometimes, another new family. Some shows reach audiences in a very special way. We had a talkback during Over The River And Through The Woods and a young girl stood up, burst into tears because she had just lost her grandmother and the play touched her deeply. The children of the Holocaust survivors had a special impact on me. “’night Mother was special. After one of the performances, I received a pack of letters from people who had lost someone to suicide and the play helped them understand. I did Lost In Yonkers four times with three different casts, so that was an interesting experience. My best work? I really had fun with Concertina’s Rainbow (at the Caldwell) but I can’t tell if it was my best work. I felt very comfortable with Lion In Winter and Look Homeward, Angel. In the last three mentioned, the plays were so well cast, directed and sooo comfortable. They just worked!

What do you think was your worst, and why didn’t it work?
I wasn’t happy with my work in The Full Monty. The role didn’t bother me, but I just hated what I did with the song. I had appeared in a few other musicals, and I don’t have a great singing voice, but this one intimidated me.

What was your worst experience working in theater?
Blithe Spirit. The director and I saw Madame Arcati differently. I think we were in two different productions.

What one role/show would like to do over or just do again?
Look Homeward Angel, Eliza Gant, I think. No one will ever do it. It’s too big a cast.

What was the worst on-stage mishap you dealt with?
We were doing The Countess and the man playing my husband didn’t feel too well after the matinee. He, however, went on that evening, but during the performance he started perspiring and looked ill, like he was having a heart attack. Everyone on stage was aware of it. He made it through and 911 took him to the hospital after the show. It wasn’t a heart attack, but he was in the hospital for a few days.

What’s the weirdest/worst non-theater job you ever had?
When I was 15, I was a soda jerk. I made all my friends huge sundaes. At the end of the week they took them out of my paycheck, leaving me nothing. Then they found out I was underage and I got fired. When I was in high school, I and three friends worked Monday evenings and Saturdays in the basement at Katz’s Millinery, selling hats under $5.

What would you do if you couldn’t be in theater?
At this stage of my life, I am a mother, grandmother, great grandmother and I have stepchildren. None of them live in Florida. I know I can find plenty to do. Photography has fascinated me, but I never acted on it.

What’s your most unforgettable theater experience?
I’ve had so many of them, many of them in dressing rooms where I have met lovely actresses who have become life-long friends. When I was just a student, I was doing Juliet at night and rehearsing Electra during the day. To this day, that was unforgettable.

What show or performance did you not see now or in the past that you wish you had?
I try to see everything I can, here. I’m sorry I missed Floyd Collins.

What’s your day job?
Do I need a day job? I guess I’ll enjoy the years I have left and, perhaps, die the way Geraldine Page did, missing a Saturday matinee.

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